Sarah Burton puts the case for a universal system of high quality, affordable, accessible childcare, to enable parents and practitioners to fulfil their potential, and make more likely for children to get the best start in life.
High levels of stress can have negative impacts on parenting (Katz et al. 2007; The Scottish Government 2010). The stress of poverty is one influence. Having to juggle school, childcare and paid employment is another. If you add to this the pressure of being a lone parent, or of caring for a child with a disability, then stress and anxiety can increase.
It is not wise policy to make the practicalities of parenting a daily obstacle course. Removing the obstacles of insufficient, poor quality, unaffordable or inaccessible childcare should be a top priority for Scotland's national and local governments.
Childcare has many functions all of which contribute to children's and adults' wellbeing in different ways.
First, there is the fact that affordable childcare enables parents to enter the labour market. This increases family income and helps to combat poverty, but only when the cost of childcare allows employment to increase net income.
Second, childcare providers and parents can be mutual sources of support. Professionals offering high-quality care treat parents as partners, learning from them and, in turn, offering opportunities for parents to learn more about their child from a new perspective, sometimes linking parents to sources of community support.
Third, and equally important, childcare is beneficial for children. Childcare, be it early childhood education and care, or out-of-school care, offers opportunities for play, learning, and social interaction. Much of parenting is circular and cyclical - repeating habits learned from one's own parents. Children enter this cycle, which is fine if the habits are healthy and useful ones, but not if they are life-compromising. Being part of a universal childcare system enables all parents and children to encounter different ways of being - and to develop different habits - as well as finding reassurance that their experiences are not unique, nor their problems unsolvable.
Young children account for nearly one half of all children and young people in poverty. Many children have endured poverty all their young lives. The 2010 Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) report found that one quarter of three and four-year-olds and one fifth of five and six-year-olds were living in 'persistently poor' families over the four-year study period. There was little change in child poverty rates in Scotland between 2004/05 and 2008/09 (Katz et al. 2007; The Scottish Government 2010).
Having a baby and providing care during the early years has a big impact on the income of families, and on women in particular. Maternity and parental leave provisions still do not adequately compensate for the loss of income during the child's first year. While leave entitlement is potentially long (up to a year), the period of relatively well-paid maternity leave is short (six weeks at 90% of pay). Paternity leave, and support for fatherhood more generally, remains even worse, despite the reality that increasing numbers of fathers are keen to become active, positive parents.
In the months after birth, the income of many families is affected by the difficulty in accessing and affording childcare services. An annual survey on the costs of raising a child has charted a 43% increase in costs between 2003 and 2010 (Liverpool Victoria 2010). In Scotland, between 2008 and 2009, the cost of a day nursery place for children age two and under rose by 12% (Daycare Trust 2009). Childcare (for all ages) is the biggest single cost incurred by families. And as a 2012 report confirms, childcare costs for parents in Scotland are still among the highest in the UK (Children in Scotland/Daycare Trust 2012).
Making high quality childcare universally available (a publicly-subsidised entitlement like schools or the NHS) is the key policy change required across Scotland. All parents should pay a contribution, according to their income but putting a cap on the cost to parents would have a dramatic impact on family income, which in turn can help lift children out of poverty and decrease parental stress.
Research shows that the impact of children's early months and years upon their lifelong health and wellbeing is huge. Sustained investment in young children could have a transformative effect on the nation's health and wellbeing. It is a perfect example of the kind of preventative spending that governments have declared a priority.
And yet, childcare, particularly for children under three, is treated as an entirely private matter. There is little state support for it, unless children are officially deemed at risk of harm and childcare is viewed as necessary as a matter of child protection. Prevention and early intervention are seriously hampered when children or parents are neither known nor supported effectively outside their immediate family until children are enrolled in nursery in the term after their third birthday. GUS research notes that the families who would benefit most from a range of services from antenatal care to early childhood education and care are the ones least likely to access these (Mabelis and Marryat 2011).
The fact is that childcare and the early family support that can accompany it are available only to those perceived to have failed in their parenting (and that failure must rise above ever-higher thresholds), or because parents are in jobs that pay well enough to include childcare costs (as long as they work during office hours).
While there are many well-intentioned support programmes, including childcare, targeted at particular groups of parents, it is well known internationally that such programmes may only reach between one third and a half of their intended target (OECD 2001; OECD 2006).
UNICEF's Report Card 8 shows that universal early childhood services have many of the same advantages as universally available education for older children. They bring together children from different backgrounds; command broad and sustainable public support; and, engender greater public concern for quality. UNICEF indicates that the way forward for early childhood programmes lies in universal services with flexible financing systems that can give priority to the disadvantaged by increasing per capita expenditure where need is greatest (UNICEF 2008).
The European Commission's Communication on Early Childhood Education and Care (2011) is emphatic about the benefits of universal access: There is clear evidence that universal access to quality ECEC is more beneficial than interventions targeted exclusively at vulnerable groups.
Governments, mainly, but not only, in Nordic countries, that take a preventative approach to public services - providing robust, universal welfare arrangements - are able to address the multiple factors that influence social exclusion. Early childhood education and care, and out of school care for primary and early secondary age children, are part of this universal welfare arrangement and, while considered essential to enabling parents to work, such support is also a universal entitlement for children and parents, regardless of parents' employment status.
Childcare and other forms of family support do not support only individuals. They can be an asset to the economy, communities and society, which is why universal entitlement should become the norm in Scotland.
The best carers for young children in different settings realise that understanding the family as a whole is the starting point for providing good care for children.
For example, early years practitioners at Quarriers Family Resource Centre in Ruchazie in the east end of Glasgow are called family workers, reflecting the belief that supporting children's learning and wellbeing needs to be in the context of the child's family and community.
Staff understand that how they engage with children and their parents is the key to developing sensitive, thoughtful and reflective relationships. Knowledge and understanding of both children and their parents or carers help staff create an environment for learning and wellbeing, and provide support for parents to develop the close, loving, secure family relationships children need (Children in Scotland 2011).
This approach is core in similarly excellent early years services elsewhere in Europe. In San Miniato, Italy, where 45% of under-threes are in early years services (compared with 30% in the UK for fewer than 30 hours) (Children in Scotland 2010) the view is that helping young children to develop is a civic duty as well as a personal responsibility of the family. Services are universal - they are not targeted at parents in work, or parents in difficulty but are open to everyone. Early years settings support a range of groups with parents. Early years staff meet together with families to consider issues of parenting, or child development, or to make toys together, or to simply have an end-of-year party. There are opportunities for individual meetings with parents if they wish (Bloomer and Cohen 2008).
Other childcare models can offer similar, family-focused support. A childminder in Lanarkshire currently advises young Polish parents about their children's entitlement to pre-school provision, of which they had no idea. In the Highlands, a childminder is working with parents of a child diagnosed with autism; navigating the health system with them; and helping them develop different ways of communicating with their child. An after-school club in Glasgow runs peer-to-peer parenting courses led by parents in the community, parents who are familiar with the local challenges of family life.
Childcare models vary, but the best support for parents is usually found in settings that recognise that children are part of families and that their wellbeing is determined as much by that family as any part of the community.
Supporting parents to parent to the best of their ability should be about removing existing obstacles as much as about providing additional information and advice. Parents respond most positively to professionals who treat them with empathy and respect and acknowledge their expertise with their own child. High quality childcare that does just that, can build parental confidence and competence, as well as benefiting the wellbeing of children being cared for daily.
Children need parents who are not exhausted and stressed by dashing from different childcare services and schools, putting together a patchwork of provision for their individual children. All parents need to be able to access childcare and other parental support services that are well designed and well run.
Providing services that parents are part of; where they feel valued and respected; and where they are encouraged to contribute their views and learn from those working with their children, enables them to be the best parents they can be. Scotland needs a universal system of high quality, affordable, accessible childcare, to enable parents and practitioners to fulfil their potential, and make it far more likely that children will get the best start in life.
Sarah Burton has been with Children in Scotland since 2004. Before this she worked for corporate social responsibility organisations in Brussels and London, and for the National Literacy Trust. She is about to complete an MA on Childhood and Youth with the Open University, and holds degrees from Cambridge and Leeds in English and American Literature. She has two young children.
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